Here's some of the more personal reflections that, in the end, were not included in the published version of Holy Waters...read (and drink) at your peril!
There are (oh yes) FOUR short chapters here, along with four sets of 'Holy Flights' and tasting notes. As if you hadn't had enough...
Faithful drinking: a personal history
Extra Holy Flight!
Casillero Casillero Del Diablo Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Duvel Strong Golden Ale
The devil’s brew
I’ve always had this problem with the devil. I was sure Satan would enter into my soul and possess it while I was helplessly sneezing.
It is of course a matter of fact that when you are sneezing, you are vulnerable to Satanic possession. That’s why, when you’re in the company of a sneezer, you say the words ‘bless you’, which will prevent any unwanted devilish attention.
‘Pneuma’, as in pneumatic, inflated, full of air, is actually the Greek word for soul or spirit, and the idea that sneezing was a near-death experience, risking the explosion of your soul with all that snot, bacteria and pieces of unswallowed food, led to the use of a blessing in order to stop the devil taking advantage. I read this in a thing called Knowledge, a incredibly tedious cross between and encyclopaedia and a comic, which I was provided with monthly when I was six years old. And because it was in Knowledge, which grew over the years until it was housed in binders and changed from comic into book, it had to be true.
Besides my mum was an inveterate blesser. She was highly superstitious and followed all kinds of arcane rules and regulations. She would throw salt over her shoulder if she spilled any; you could never put shoes on a table (very, very bad, meaning death) or eat anything from a knife. I’ve only recently found out that this is all to do with the devil — the salt over the shoulder thing is meant to blind him, as he is forever lurking there, waiting for your to spill salt, pick up some baked beans with your knife or generally do something bad with your shoes lurking next to the cruet set. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. What’s that Judas has knocked over with his elbow? That would be the salt cellar.
I’ve been dealing with that lurking Satan all my life. Trying to drown him, sometimes, with various liquids. And of course, I what I was using was a dangerous substance. The demon drink, in fact.
The devil lurks quite explicitly in some wines and beers - notably in Casillero del Diablo, a range of red wines from Chile whose name means “the devil’s locker” or “the devil’s cellar”. The story of how the wines were named is interesting. In 1883, a man called Don Melchor founded the winery Concha y Toro (which owns Casillero del Diablo and is now one of the world’s biggest winemakers). He had brought back to Chile techniques and vines from France and planted his new grapes at his estate in Pirque outside Santiago. The wines he produced were exceptional. Too good, perhaps, as they kept disappearing from his cellars, despite extensive security being put in place.
The area around the Concho y Toro vineyards was exceptionally religious, and Don Melchor decided to spread a story that the cellars were haunted by no less a personage than Satan himself. He must have been a good storyteller, as the rumours took hold, were exaggerated and expanded, and suddenly, the thefts stopped.
But the name stuck.
The devil is in more than the detail of other drinks too. Notably Duvel beer, a Belgian golden ale that can be exceptionally deceptive. The most common bottling of this award-winning beer comes in at a whopping 8.5 percent alcohol, and yet it tastes smooth and even quite mild. A friend of mine, let’s call him Rob, as that is in fact his name, was served Duvel for the first time at a hotel in the Black Isle, home to the Clootie Well discussed earlier. He drank three in quick succession, not being aware of the strength. He made it to bed but was quite unable to get up the next day.
I have to admit that Duvel is one of my favourite beers, but it is not what one would call a ‘session ale’. One is more than enough. There are Duvel products bottled at lower alcohol percentages, but, well, Duvel 666 seems to be tempting fate just a little. Invoking the antichrist by producing a drink with 6.66 percent alcohol displays quite the insouciance. But then Albert Moortgat, who first brewed it, was something of a rebel.
Duvel was first made in 1918 to celebrate the end of World War One, and was known as Victory. Moortgat had travelled to the UK to find a yeast he could use in this celebratory concoction, and found it (inevitably) in Scotland. That Scottish yeast is still at the heart of Duvel, which did not obtain its present name until 1923. The local Catholic priests were outraged, but Moortgat stuck to his guns. And it wasn’t the devil who made him change the name. It was a shoemaker. Brewery lore says that a shoemaker attending a tasting session remarked that the beer was “a real devil.” The name stuck.
Extra Holy flight - tasting notes
Casillero Casillero Del Diablo Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Cheap and extremely cheerful. Your south American pal in the supermarket. Reliable, and the 2018 is fine for the money. A nutritionist friend once told me that Chilean wines had the highest levels of antioxidants due to the vines having to struggle that much harder to survive in the narrow band of fertile land between mountain and sea.
Nose: Dark fruits like cherry and blackcurrant on a waft of oak burning in a mountain hut. Palate: Nothing too demanding. Lots of soft fruit and the tannins are under control.
Finish: More berries and the slightly acrid (but not upsetting) aroma of pencil sharpenings chewed to a pulp during a maths class.
Duvel Strong Golden Ale
What can I say? One of the great mass market beers of the world, and it offers fantastic value, both in terms of quality and bang for your buck. But beware, it really does not taste like it’s 8.5 percent ABV. Two of these will put a strong horse on its back.
It’s prickly but delicate on the nose, and then as you drink, carefully, it reveals a very refined hoppiness, coupled with soft fruit and a yeasty bitterness. It hides that devilish power very well, until the third swallow, when you begin to suspect that something mood-altering may be going on.
Yet another extra Holy Flight !
Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Guinness Original Stout (bottled)
God had left the Mortons behind. The saints had been raptured, all the Bethany Hall brethren and sistern had been whisked up to heaven, and not only had our family missed this spectacular event but we had been left, gravity-oppressed, condemned to life on earth without all the other Christians. In a Vauxhall Velux. In Troon, a little town on the Firth of Clyde. At least there was a joint of beef slowly roasting in the oven back at the house. No wine to accompany it, though.
What had we done wrong? The Morton family had been saved, or the two adult members of it who were deemed grown-up enough to be savagely sinful and redeemed from it by choice were. Me, I was a borderline case. In fact I would be 11 before being born again after my scary Uncle David preached a sermon in an overheated Bethany Hall. I didn’t really understand much of what he’d said (“David’s an expositor,” my dad would say, “a great expositor. He can understand the original Greek.”) but his stern, schoolmasterly authority overwhelmed me with fear of hell, damnation, and more importantly than any of that, being left behind as the rest of my family was whisked skywards. And I knew he was intelligent, and could read Greek. So what he said had to be true. But that was later. In 1962 we had the Second Coming to deal with. And not being in it.
The Second Coming. It’s central to all forms of Christianity that Jesus died on the cross to save all of humanity from sin. For fundamentalist evangelicals like we Brethren (and that’s Christian Brethren, by the way, not Plymouth, who were basically English and posh) that would be a real, historical flesh and blood Jesus who was also the Son of God. Stones were rolled away, he physically came back to life and then whooshed off to heaven, promising to return. How he was going toreturn then became a matter of...well. Some debate.
Let’s keep it simple. You’ve got those who think it’s all symbols and metaphor. To hell with them, says the fundamentalists, they’re not really Christians at all. But in the born again camp (those who’ve consciously accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour and Lord, been converted, given their hearts to Jesus and all that kind of stuff) there are variants. Our lot, The Brethren (sistern as well, but frankly that’s with a small ’s’; in the 1960s they made the tea and not a lot else) believed that before Jesus came back, the graves would open, all ‘the dead in Christ would rise first’, and the saved would join this assortment of rotted redeemed “in the air’, defying gravity to meet the Lord on his way down to rule over the earth to rule things for 1000 years. This was known as premillenial dispensationalism.
Of course, at seven, I didn’t know the ins and outs and, if you will, ups and down of all this. I knew that if you weren’t saved, you didn’t get to fly and ended up, OK, on earth being ruled by Jesus, but in the end, condemned to hell forever. But I had never really applied this to my own eternal soul at that stage. Not when there were more important things to deal with like Meccano, Lego and early episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. And now, on this lovely crisp October Sunday morning, it looked like somewhere along the line, a mistake had been made and we, our family, Mum, dad, me and sisters Shiona and Ruth (who were monstrously annoying but not condemned by original sin as yet because they were too young, ) were stuck on earth. I felt vaguely concerned. Mum burst into tears.
God had made a mistake, which seemed unlikely, Or we had. Maybe mum and dad hadn’t repented properly. But all of us? We stared at the locked and shuttered frontage of Bethany Hall in West Portland Street. Not a car was parked outside, not a worshipper evident. The sound of leather-bound India paper Bibles ruffling the breeze was not, as usual, scaring the seagulls.
“We’ve been left behind!” said mum. “We should never have got that television!” I would later realise that premillennial dispensationalism did not allow for backsliding or recidivism, that once you were saved you were saved no matter what evil you’ve done. Even renting a black and white Rediffusion telly on which we only ever watched Blue Peter and the news. Unless of course you adhered to the teaching of Arminius, who believed you could fall from Grace and head do hell after being converted. Sort of born again, again, only into disgrace, not grace.
But all I knew then was that we sat, tensely, for a few moments, until dad, who was after all a university-educated dentist, trained in the ways of logic and the alleviation of dental decay, put on the car radio - something not usually allowed on a Sunday because that was to consort with worldliness and the ways of the flesh, flirting with the devil that lurked on the holy seventh day, among the plummy voices of the BBC Home Service. And that was how we found out that the clocks had gone back an hour.
Daylight saving time. Invented by George Vincent Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist in 1895, - this is absolutely true - because he wanted more time for collecting insects. This notion was seized upon by the British builder William Willett who liked getting up early anyway and was the great- great- great- grandfather of Coldplay singer Chris Martin. It took World War One for the idea to be adopted. Daylight being more precious in time of war.
Not the second coming, then. Maybe we should have remembered that we’d driven our Vauxhall Velox past he cemetery, which had been intact, no graves having forced open by a divine arrival, nor enlivened corps levitated. Dad drove around the corner to the promenade and we had a walk in our Sunday best, or rather, dad and Shiona and I did, with mum and Ruthie, who was contentedly asleep in a carrycot and innocent of God, sin and the necessity of redemption, remaining in the car.
It would have saved a lot time, trouble and emotional trauma if I’d recognised then, aged seven, that the form of evangelicalism I had been born into was, let’s say, not built on entirely solid intellectual foundations. But instead, we walked on the grass and concrete, but did not go on to the actual beach as that sandy expanse was a place of leisure and recreation and not for Sundays. Besides, we had our good shoes on. And eventually it was time for the morning meeting, during which we children were expected to sit in, if not worshipful silence and not squirm too much. Ruthie, well behaved at that stage (“what a lovely baby! so quiet!”) slept in her carrycot at the back of the hall, mum ready to rush outside with here should the merest squeak emerge and the godly atmosphere be disturbed.
It should be pointed out in all fairness that it was1962 and people were a little edgy that year, what with the Cuban missile criss, the likelihood, indeed near certainty of nuclear war and the End of the World. In the brethren, feverish attempts to match contemporary events up with the prophecies of Revelation, the Book of job and chunks of Isaiah had been going on in Gospel Halls and Bible study groups, in what I would later realise was a fundamentalist equivalent of that anally retentive male conspiracy theory habit of reading far too much into everything. The kind of thing you find in folk who believe Kennedy was murdered by the Freemasons and that Flying Saucers are actually repaired in the town of Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire, in the cellars underneath the local Kwikfit. (which has abnormally large premises, suspiciously enough).
But I didn’t know anything about that. I was seven, we had just moved to Troon from Glasgow. not only was the world tense, our family was financially overstretched (the new house had cost whopping £6000) and tired, with dad commuting every ay the 70 miles round trip to Glasgow. Far from our previous busy home above a city dental surgery in Pollokshaws, and even further from my grannies in the smoky steel and mining town of Bellshill, far away in Lanarkshire.
We drove home, hungry, getting hungrier by the minute as we knew that Sunday dinner was waiting of us. The meat had been placed in the oven before we left, though it was as we headed home that dreadful realisation bust upon my mother.
“The meat! The joint will ruined! It’ll be tough as a boot with this extra hour!” But it wasn’t. When we open the front door the delicious aroma of roasting beef was overwhelming, but for some reason mum had put it on at 100 degrees less than the carefully calculated to incinerate (no rare red cheffy bloody nonsense in those days) 400 degree Fahrenheit. It was clear that God had taken care of everything, knowing full well that we were in a state of some confusion, had left for Church too early and that His Son was not, in fact planning to return to Earth in Glory, removing all proper Christians in the process, not on that particular Sunday morning.
Dinner was delicious and as usual I had three helpings. I was, after all a growing boy.
Some 40 years later, I was on the ferry Hjaltland, heading from Aberdeen to Shetland on a calm summer’s night, having dinner with premillennialist. We were on our second bottle of bad Burgundy when he informed that he knew the exact date of the Second Coming, and he would be revealing it in due course to members of the community both he and I lived in.
When I woke up the next morning, the boat cruising into Lerwick, I couldn’t remember the date. That’s the problem with alcohol. What I can tell you is that it was in the coming October, and that it came and went without major incident.
Yet another Holy flight - tasting notes
Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Not an expensive Bourbon, but one bearing Heaven Hill’s own name and available for below £30 a bottle will have a lot of history and reputation to live up to. And it does, for the most part.
Nose: The usual. Caramel and cinnamon. That Himalayan mountain tea made with Carnation Milk and brown sugar. Nostril-crinkling with alcohol whiffling in, despite it’s bog-standard 40 per cent watering-down.
Palate: Middleweight with fruit and spice, slightly edge and sweet with Demarara sugar galore.
Finish: Fades fruitily into a hint of Stewart’s Dark Rum.
Guinness Original Stout (bottled)
Arthur Guinness and his family were committed (Protestant, Church of ireland) Christians, and his first move into brewing in 1755 came as a result of the £100 he had been left three years earlier in the will of his godfather Rev Arthur Price an Archbishop in the Church of Ireland. Some will say that the first production of Guinness was intended not to get people drunk, but in fact to save them from drunkenness. He was indeed a philanthropist and committed churchman, but as he pointed out, he had 10 children to support and he was an astute and visionary businessman. When he began brewing in Dublin in 1759 at St James’s Gate, he took out a 9000 year lease on the land. Guinness is still there today.
Curiously, Os Guinness, great- great- great- grandson of Arthur, is one of the world’s leading evangelical apologists, a theologian and philosopher who I heard speak when I was 18, and was closely associated with L’Abri, the Swiss centre run by Francis Schaeffer, whose work has been enormously influential on evangelical thinking, most recently in some areas of American political thinking.
There are all sorts of Guinness. A visit to St James’s Gate if you’re in Dublin is extremely worthwhile. The visitors centre building is in the shape of a pint glass, with the ‘head’ being a bar in which you can drink a pint of the black stuff - or ‘Uncle Arthur’ as it’s sometimes known in Ireland.
This bottling is unusual. Guinness Original is a direct descendant of the early recipes from the Guinness Archive, based on a beer first made in 1821. It’s very different from the smooth creaminess of draught guinness - sharp, quite aggressive and crisp on the nose and initially in the mouth. \Then there’s that dark, roasted barley, much more uncompromising than the Guinness you may be used. Bigger bubbles! It takes no prisoners and won’t be to everyone’s taste. But it leads directly back to Arthur.
Yes there's more...another Holy Flight
Berry Brothers and Rudd, sherry cask finished blended malt
Shlöer (red) grape juice
My dad died aged 90, his mind clear almost to the end.for a man of great faith, it was odd, in the last days I spent with him, to hear nothing about Heaven, Hell, or God. Instead, he remembered things from his childhood, his teenage years, his service in the RAF. His Uncle Robert, who slept with a gun under his pillow during the Second World War, and two ferocious Alsatians in the back kitchen. Robert ran businesses on the edges of what was legal during wartime. He claimed not remember the incident I described above. The Second Coming That Wasn’t. My mum died aged 50 of the genetic heart failure which killed her father at the same age and almost killed me at 59. Dad was still in The Brethren, though unable to attend the local Gospel Hall, although it does;’t call itself that anymore, and the tin-shack seaside working class raffishness of Brethrenism has been exchanged for bourgeois respectability. It’s an ‘evangelical church’ now. There are full-time staff, a pastor. women don’t have to wear hats because of the angels, though there’s still male dominance in all things to do with leadership. The centrepiece of Gospel Hall life, the weekly communion service or breaking of bread, still happens, but it’s like a piece of nostalgia, a secret piece of the past, a Tridentine mass for the old an the purist. And these days the wine used isn’t the heavily fortified British Old Tawny Port you could see those elderly communicants taking great lip-smacking gulps of at Bethany Hall. Indeed, there’s no common silver cup (the mixture of alcohol and silver acts as a disinfectant, my dad would say, if cold sores or sniffles abounded in the hall of a Sabbath). These days it’s non-alcoholic grape juice, Shlöer or some expensive and ecclesiastical alternative.
There will always be a particular drink associated with the night dad died, with the relief that came as a relief after his long struggle with the dying of the light. He was ready to leave, fed up with the disabilities forced on him by age and illness. Unable to do the things he liked.
And he couldn’t drink the whisky I’d bought for him the previous year, and which he’d loved. He was a man who wasn’t particularly fond of Scotland’s national drink. Lengthy periods spent in Spain had left him with a taste for the older Osborne brandies from Jerez, and it was the resemblance of Berry Brothers and Rudd’s Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, sherry cask matured, to his favourite Spanish brandy that sold him on the dram.
On the night he died, there was still a good half bottle left. He was peaceful, sleeping, but we expected him to last the night, and I decided that I would stay and take turns sitting with him. No driving, so I helped myself to a dram from that open bottle.
It's a hefty whisky, carefully calculated to give you that Christmas pudding, fruitcake and marmalade hit, that deep, comforting sweetness that, as I get older, I tend to crave in an evening dram. At 44.2 percent I’m guessing it’s cask strength – not all whisky comes out of the cask at ferocious alcohol levels, and this is a mixture of Speysides, some of which will be quite young. There’s no age statement. I’ve tasted heavily sherried whiskies which, at three years old, had all the power and depth of much older liquids.
So yes, I can see why dad thought it was “almost as good” as a decent brandy. There is a sulphurous element to it, a hint of rubber tyres in an old garage, but nothing sufficient to put you off; to take away that comfort. To numb the pain.
Berry Brothers and Rudd is based in London, and is one of the oldest wine and spirits dealers in the world. It began in 1698 as a coffee house and grocery store at 3 St James’s Street, run by a woman known only as “the Widow Bourne”. More than three centuries later, it continues to operate at that address, though it is now a huge business with a worldwide clientele, much of its profitability over the years based on the famous Cutty Sark whisky blend. It’s still a family concern.
That night I sipped the malt, feeling vaguely guilty that it was a gift I’d given, and now I was helping myself, without dad’s permission, without sharing it with him. But I soon felt the relaxing glow. A teardrop of water was all it needed. And as I finished the glass than dad simply slipped away, his wife, my stepmother, holding his hand.
*** *** ***
These days I’m an official humanist celebrant, a kind of minister without religion, able to conduct marriages, funerals and generally participate in the rituals so necessary to our eearthbound and very limited lives. I work with a group called Celebrate People, who provide humanist support services including counselling and education. Still, I harbour a deep affection for a time when proper Gospel Halls abounded, for that cupboard in Kirkcudbright where Tommy Lochhead, local potter, one of only three Brethren members in the little village, and the only male, stored all the half-empty bottles of Ribena he used to make up a particular form of zero-proof communion wine. For the panelled halls ‘up the valley’ in Ayrshire where they still had paraffin lamps and the pre-evening meeting prayers took place overrated, on your knees as your breath floated into the chilled air like incense. For the open-airs and doorstep visitations, the leafletting of pubs, the masochistic self-humiliation of public witness or wearing badges of belief. For the smell of the Bellshill gospel hall, the combined aroma of steel works, pit bing and pig sties amongst which the little building sat. Combined with mothballs, my mother’s Tweed perfume, the whiff of unwashed worshipper, the tang of the fortified wine in that common cup, the yeasty aroma of bread. Hunger. Hunger smashing its way in no matter how big the breakfast. I was always hungry. And the unaccompanied voices bellowing out the contents of The Believers Hymn Book in the morning and the Greatest Hits of Moody and Sankey in on a Sunday night. Sacred Songs and Sea Shanties.
Gone now, or going. Now it’s all powerpoint ‘worship song’ banality. terribly bland bands, hands help to the sky and the occasional muttering of glossolalia. Evangelicalism hasn’t so much gone mainstream as smoothed itself into a mediocrity of mildness, an inoffensive palliative of personal redemption. Once that message was at the root of social change, of survival against all the odds in the face of brute industry or dangerous deep sea fishing. Now it’s just another piece of psychocomfort, of entertainment.
Because we’re scared of many things now, but Jesus coming back isn’t one of them. We’re not scratching at the Gospel hall door, worried we’ve been left behind. What’s been left behind is God. We’re on our own. Alcohol is no longer the wine of communion with a higher power, but the salve to our loneliness. Or one of them.
Uh, another Holy Flight - tasting notes
Berry Brothers and Rudd Blended Malt Whisky, Sherry Cask Matured
Colour: Deep reddy-gold. There may be some artificial (caramel) colouring in it, but you don’t begrudge the blenders at this price.
Nose: Officially “put together by Doug McIvor and Ronnie Cox at Berry Bros and Rudd to showcase the best of sherry-cask whisky”, and I think they’ve done very well. Lots of sherry notes, that dark, crick-bat linseed oil, resinous, old-library smell, with just the merest hint of garage floors (in a good way)
Palate: Loads of dark fruitcake, dried fruit generally, dates and apricots, A leathery, wax polish on old oak note, and just a bit of sulphur acknowledging that there’s some young liquid in here. It doesn’t have the sophistication of something like a Glenfarclas 15, but it is really satisfying.
Finish: Endearingly long and warming. Pine cones on a hardwood fire as the snow falls gently outside. Ideal with cheese. Or, for that matter, Christmas cake. 44.2 percent ABV.
Shlöer (red) grape juice
Sweet with a dry undertone, tiny bubbles (to quote the famous song) and strangely addictive. Raisiny. It’s what adults drank as a special treat in my childhood when wine was either not available or not permitted. And it was used as communion wine when away on youth fellowship retreats or conference weekends.
Getting slightly fed up with the Holy Flights ( I think my editor was...)
McEwen’s Export (red tin)
I blame Mike, my first editor. Or journalism. Or the Snaffle Bit bar in Glasgow’s Finnieston. Before encountering any of these, I was a committed Christian whose drinking was on a strictly amateur level. Then I went to work for the construction industry newspaper Project Scotland, and things changed.
Drinking at lunchtime was completely new to me. The idea of rounds very peculiar. And the hard-living culture of Glasgow journalism, indeed of office life generally in the 1970s, something I had never encountered before. So the day I found myself in the Snaffle Bit with three full pints of McEwen’s Export sitting in front of me, one already tentatively downed, was life-changing. This was at approximately 1.45pm, with a full afternoon of work stretching before me. And I was expected to drink all three in 15 minutes. What kind of a man was I?
Answer: I was a 21-year-old Brethren boy with no experience of what was very much a way of life at the time. Almost a religion.
Not one I wished to embrace. I left two of the pints and just about made it through the day without falling asleep at my desk.
Seven years later, things were different.
Lot had happened. My marriage was failing, or I was failing my marriage. Faith had abandoned me, or I was in the process of abandoning faith after a tumultuous period which included full-time preaching, touring with religious rock groups, recording albums, living in a Christian commune, speaking in tongues, and finally an encounter with a prophetess who claimed to have seen me cavorting with a woman who was not my wife. In a vision. This last revelation was, I must admit, a trifle shocking but the likelihood was the she had seen me in a supposedly secret tryst in her local park, which I have to admit was a bit stupid of me.
Things were falling apart. The days of professional religiosity were behind me, and somehow I had wangled a return to Project Scotland, where Mike was still the editor. It was Christmas, and we had a night out planned, first with we three editorial staff, then joining the advertising and management employees for a formal dinner dance at a plush Glasgow function suite.
Mike tried to advise me: drink a pint of milk before you leave the house. I didn’t. Nor did I have anything to eat before the pints of heavy beer began. Then there was meal, a fussy, four course Italianate things with veal, wine, beer and more wine. And then came the flaming Sambucas.
Projectile vomiting on the wide sweep of stairs leading down to the toilets was the least of it. I can still remember the horrified expressions on the faces of the couple coming up the stairs towards me, directly in the path of my…output. The hours spent slumped in a spinning cubicle. Bein rescued by Mike and poured into a taxi. Determined to sober up before facing my wife, already so bitterly disappointed in me, I spent a freezing few hours walking in a park. It was one of the coldest nights of the year, and eventually I decided I would catch a few minutes sleep, and that I might as well lie down on the path. I woke, thankfully not long afterwards, my cheek frozen to the ground. Just about alive, I staggered home, walking up in a pool of sickness on the living room floor a few hours later, everything static in my world still moving except for me.
Here’s a thing. Alcohol is part and parcel of many faiths, but it helped dissolve mine.
Holy flight - tasting notes
McEwen’s Export (red tin)
The infamous ‘red tin’ of my semi-youth, and with the extremely fizzy, caramel and burnt-almonds, treacle and pavement-in-your-face taste many Scots of my vintage will remember all too well. Interesting to try for the first time if you never have, and full of nostalgia for those who are all too familiar. These tins are known in my home archipelago as ‘Shetland Roses’ as they bloom so often in the roadside ditches, having been drunk in cars and then tossed out of open windows.
Flaming, with a coffee bean. Not if you have a beard or a moustache. It’s Italian, and the coffee beans are symbolic of…the seven hills of Rome (if there’s seven); health, happiness and prosperity (three) and a fly (con la mosca, one). No matter which brand you try of the most common white Samba, it will be all aniseed and fennel, liquorice, ill-advised trips to all-night casinos and subsequent arrest warrants. Though I admit that’s based on my own experience.
It goes on....oh yes it does
Son of the Dove
After that, I realised that I was to continue drinking, or at least drinking and working, I was going to have to be a bit more professional about it. I began taking Mike’s advice on eating or drinking milk before a night out. Of rehydrating with non-alcoholic liquids if you’d been exercising (he and I were briefly members of a Shuko-kai karate dojo; I do not recommend drinking and fighting, though the two tend to go hand in hand in Glasgow). We would go out drinking in pubs that today either no longer exist or are so gentrified the idea that we could find ourselves locked in at 2.00am along with a bunch of ex-Celtic players, one of whom insisted on drinking his whisky and then eating the glass it came in, is ridiculous. I became interested in malt whisky, and discovered that an appreciation of this marvellous substance in its many, many varieties was dependent on not being drunk when you were drinking it. In other words, you had to be sober to evaluate the qualities of a liquid which had been explicitly produced with the aim of getting people drunk. Enlightenment followed.
Uisge Beatha, the water of life is about place, and people. It is truly about communion with the land, be that Scotland, Ireland or elsewhere, and the water, earth, grain, yeast and wood that makes a particular whisky local, that makes it unique. It began with that sideboard in dad’s house. But what set me properly off on a journey through the wondrous highways and byways of whisky was a book - John Fowles novel Daniel Martin.
Pubs are big in this 1977 novel - badly received in the UK, acclaimed in the USA - by an author best known for his breakthrough book The French Lieutenant’s woman, alter filmed with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. The eponymous Daniel martin is a successful Hollywood Screenwriter who comes back to England and ( very bald summary) rekindles a love affair. It’s an exploration of what it means to be english, and there is quite a lot drinking. It was the first time I had ever seen the word ‘Laphroaig’.
Laphroaig is a single malt whisky from Islay. As a result of reading about, and finally learning how to pronounce it, I ordered it one day in a pub. The taste was like nothing I had ever encountered before. It seemed like a joke. Antsipectic, seaweed, earth, water fire and air, concentrated. Distilled even. Was I supposed to drink it put it on a wound? I could barely say it.
But something about its dank, party power nagged away at my soul. It was calling me. I learned to say it, the words rolling off my tongue, more and more easily as glasses went down, one after the other. Then there were the brothers and sisters of Laphroaig, the Islay confederates: Lagavulin, Bunnahabhain (and how did you say THAT?) Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Ardbeg. Subtly or fiercely different from each other. Islay was style of whisky all its own. Its whiskies seemed to meet my tastes in a peculiarly appropriate way. They dovetailed, in all their phenolic splendour with my soul. They healed my wounds.
My maternal grandfather came from the island. He left islay aged 12, or was sent away to the industrial heartlands of Scotland, to find employment and begin a new life. Nobody in our family knew anything about his island background, whether he had ever spoken Gaelic, what had prompted that apparent banishment.
John Maccalman became a railwayman, a sewing machine salesman, a Brethren preacher of the highest repute. On elf the last things my father talked about was seeing him, my grandfather preaching in the open air on the Low Green at Ayr, holding a crowd of the bored and cynical absolutely spellbound. Just a few hundred yards from where dad eventually died.
It was inevitable that I would end up in Islay, and that I would to find out more about John MacCalman’s elusive island boyhood. I was sidetracked by what was by 1992 a professional need to visit every distillery on the island, but I did ask about the MacCalmans. Yes, it was a common name on the island. No, no-one could tell my anything about a John who may have left the island aged 12 in 1910 or thereabouts.
On the final day of visit to the island, I went to the Museum of Islay life at Port Charlotte, and began searching through their kirk records for MacCalmans. There were quite a few, but I couldn’t see any sign of a trail left by my grandfather. The MacCalmans had lived on Islay for several hundred years, and had included in their ranks quite a few interesting characters. One, Janet whose second name was spelt in the parish register as NcKalman, had been prone to casting spells, or in demand for such services, and in 1697 was called before the local kirk session to answer charges that she had been engaged in occult practices. This was a charge that could have led to her execution. Wittchcraft was taken extremely seriously by the (male) denizens of Scottish protestantism, particularly in small island communities. Its as recorded that at first she failed to appear before the session, and could not be found as it turned out she was officilly homeless (although probably being given shelter in or other associated family household). When finally dragged before the church court, including the local Beadle, whose name was also MacCalman, she was admonished and sent on her way, the official verdict being that she was “so stupid no sense could be gained from her.”
I like to read between the lines of that decision, and the presence of two MacCalmans in the court, one a judge one the accused. This was someone well known to everyone on the island. Janet was not just a Maccalman, but she was someone who was either a poor old soul whose wits had deserted her, or a useful “wise woman” who was (hint- she couldn’t initially be found) being protected. One way or another, she was let off at a time when “crimes” such as the ones she was accused of were not usually treated so lightly.
Back at the bed and breakfast I was staying in, I spoke to Mrs MacTaggart, the owner. The MacCalmans, she said, might originally have come from Ireland. Maybe they brought the secret of whisky with them, I mused. But no, that would have been Columba or one of his monks. Could a MacCalman have been one of them?
“In Gaelic, ‘MacCalman’ would mean “son of the Dove’, and it would have been a priest’s name, a holy name,” she said.
It’s my middle name.
Holy flight - tasting notes
I have consumed a lot of this stuff over the decades, and even now, it arrives with a fanfare of metaphorical bagpipes, then shoves you face down in the peat bog, picks you up and throws you in the sea. This is good, if you were wondering.
Nose: Lots of phenol from the peat. Then that seaweed saltiness, iodine, ozone, smoke and Elastoplast that’s been on a wound too long.
Palate: Seaweed that’s been drying int eh son and is just on the edge of rotting, but in a way that reminds you of childhood holidays and the prospect of fish and chips. A big wallop of antiseptic liquid, Dettol and TCP, but with a sweetness lurking and then spiciness, black peppers and chilli with lemon and leather.
Finish: Melting road tar and the tide going out on a sandy estuary on a sunny day.
Expensive these days and quite difficult to find, this is an official Diageo bottling and the key things to look for are sherry and peat. If you thought Laphroaig was an uncompromising southern Islay malt, wait until you try this.
Nose: Deep Oloroso sherry notes and of course that intense, smoky peat. Like standing over a chimney while trying to thatch a crofthosue roof. If they still used thatch, which on the whole they don’t, except for very specific AirBnB tourist lets.
Palate: Sweet and deep, like finding yourself in an isolation tank made of old oak where the suspension liquid is ancient sherry and someone is smoking cigars made of peat right in front of your face. Extraordinary and quite lovely. Powerful and very good with strong cheese.
Finish: the dried fruits and squashy, brandy-soaked fruitcake comes in here, but still the smoke and peat, the heather and salt. Wonderful.